She was standing in the middle of the railroad tracks. Her head was bowed and her right front hoof was raised as if she rested.
The Wars tells the story of Robert Ross, an officer in the Canadian army during WWI, a young man full of guilt over the death of his sister. This sister, Rowena, suffered from hydrocephalus, and Robert had promised to never leave her. But, when she is being watched by their younger brother Stuart, she falls, hits her head and dies. In the aftermath, Robert enlists.
This is a very slight book, 191 pages in my penguin edition, not a lot of space to deal with all the themes that war and loss bring with them. Yet Findley manages to do that. He uses different perspectives and narrator’s to do this. There is the historian or researcher who is looking into the case of Robert Ross. There are those who knew him, their recollections and memories are pieced together to try and solve the puzzle that is Robert. There is the third person all-seeing narrator who tells us what happened to Robert, what he might have thought and felt. All these varied and differing perspectives combine to give some idea of the whole. While at the same time, never offering to be the one and only truth.
The whole novel is filled with a sense of foreboding. Of course that shouldn’t really be a surprise, the main subject of the book is The Great War, and all the futile loss that involves. But it is also full of personal tragedy. Robert has lost his sister, through no fault of his own, yet is consumed by guilt and anger over that death. He doesn’t see himself as a killer. He looks for somebody to act as a mentor, someone he can emulate, but even when he finds such a hero it doesn’t end well.
Robert makes few friends in the army, one of the notable ones is Rodwell who, in the middle of all that death and killing, takes the time to look after and try to nurse injured animals back to health. But this also turns tragic. Rodwell is transferred and when his new regiment learns of his feelings towards animals they force him to watch them torture and kill a cat. Rodwell commits suicide, leaving Robert with his belongings, drawings he has done and a letter to his daughter.
Robert is increasingly isolated from all around him. He is raped by his fellow officers but knows that he will never know who they were. Increasingly he loses his temper and the reader is left to witness his decent into madness. Or perhaps it is into sanity?
Robert I discovered was a very private man. His temper was terrible. Once when he thought he was lone and unobserved I saw him firing his gun in the woods at a young tree. It was a sight I’d rather not have seen. He destroyed it absolutely! He had great deal of violence inside and sometimes it emerged this way with a gesture and other times it showed in his expression when you found him sitting alone on the terrace or staring out of a window.
This is a wonderfully written book. Every word counts, and, although it is depressing, it is still a lovely read. I read it in one sitting, and I would easily read it again.
Those people in the part – you – me – every one – the greatest mistake we made was to imagine something separated us from Ludendorff and Kitchener and Foch. Our leaders, you see. Well – Churchill and Hitler, for that matter! (LAUGHTER) Why, such men are just the butcher and the grocer – selling us meat and potatoes across the counter. That’s what binds us together. They appeal to our basest instincts. The lowest common denominator. And then we turn around and call them extraordinary! … Robert Ross was no Hitler. That was his problem.